I feel like Tyranny suffers from a slight marketing problem. Let’s take a quick look at the blurb on the Steam store:
In Tyranny, the grand war between good and evil is over – and the forces of evil, led by Kyros the Overlord, have won. The Overlord’s merciless armies dominate the face of the world, and its denizens must find their new roles within the war-torn realm… even as discord begins to rumble among the ranks of Kyros’ most powerful Archons.
Sounds interesting, right? Tyranny is actively sold as an RPG where you are — or at least, are working for — the bad guy. Having played all the way through Tyranny now, though, I’d say that maybe one third of that summary is accurate; discord is indeed rumbling among the ranks of Kyros’ Archons, to the point where the first act feels more like you’re wrangling a bunch of preschoolers squabbling over who gets to play with the pony next than it does dealing with the immensely powerful leaders of Kyros’ armies. As far as the rest of it goes I have some bad news for Kyros, as the dictionary definition of “dominate” is “to have a commanding position over”, and since Kyros’ forces are afraid to venture outside of their camps in nearly all of the territories that you visit during the course of the game I would say that he’s1 dominating the world in the same way that the USA dominated Vietnam back in the ‘70s. It’s that first sentence I really take issue with, though. There is plenty of scope for an RPG in which you’re on the side of evil for once — genuine evil, not the mwa-ha-ha-ing stereotypes found in Bioware titles. Psychopath playthrough of Alpha Protocol aside, I’ve not seen the genre come up with anything significantly new here since I told Zaalbar to kill Mission back in Knights Of The Old Republic and I was looking forward to an exploration of what being evil would mean and how it would change things both for your character and for the wider game world.
Unfortunately, Tyranny is not that game.
I should probably be clear about one thing before we go any further: Tyranny is a good game. What it is not is a good game about evil, and while I’d usually feel like that was a personal expectation and wouldn’t hold it against Tyranny all that much, in this instance I don’t feel like it was an unreasonable one based on the marketing. To be fair, doing the Tyranny concept as stated would be tricky without coming off as Brandon Sanderson fanfiction (although I would have been okay with that as long as I got to play a Steel Inquisitor), but even so it’s far more conventional than I thought it would be. And disappointingly so, especially considering Tyranny is built on top of the Pillars Of Eternity game engine and so already recycles an awful lot of content.
Tyranny casts you as a Bhaalspawn Spectre Watcher Fatebinder travelling to the war-torn Tiers. The armies of Kyros’ conquest in the Tiers are split into two factions: the Scarlet Chorus, led by the Voices of Nerat (Chaotic Evil), who are a survival-of-the-fittest collection of gangs that overwhelms enemy forces through sheer weight of numbers, and the Disfavored, a small but elite band of fighters led by Graven Ashe (Lawful Neutral). As the two factions have been set up to be polar opposites they kind of hate each other and spend more time sabotaging the other’s efforts than they do fighting the poorly-defined enemy. This is where you come in: Kyros has sent you to knock some heads together and ensure the conquest goes as planned, and he’s backed things up with an Edict. Much of Tyranny’s plot and backstory revolves around the Edicts, which are super-powerful magic spells capable of destroying entire regions, but this one just says that everyone in the valley is going to die unless they capture the last remaining enemy stronghold within eight days2. Excellently this is reflected in a little timer next to the menu bar at the top of the screen; since “everyone” happens to include you (as you were in the valley at the time you read the Edict) you also have a vested interest in getting this situation resolved as quickly as possible.
Having the Edict hanging over your head makes this extended tutorial segment a little more interesting, since the tutorial itself is basically there to emphasise Tyranny’s reputation system and I think it spends a little too much time over-egging the pudding. Said reputation system bears more than a passing resemblance to the attitude ratings from Alpha Protocol: every single faction and major character has both a Loyalty and a Wrath rating, and doing things that they like or dislike will raise the respective rating. Importantly this is not a single sliding scale; while it is possible to do things that will lose somebody’s Loyalty, an action that increases Wrath doesn’t usually decrease Loyalty at the same time and so you’re freed for the most part from worrying about powergaming the reputation system to maximise one or the other for the good ending. It’s perfectly possible to max both for certain factions – I know I did — and while there are passive ability unlocks that are linked to Loyalty/Wrath ratings you mostly care about them because they change the responses you get in conversations. As with Alpha Protocol having a high Wrath rating isn’t necessarily a bad thing and also opens up new responses from NPCs, which makes this pretty much a perfect system for roleplaying: optimising your reputation for mechanical benefit isn’t really a consideration, and so you’re free to act how you will and people will respond naturally to you based on what you’ve been doing to them.
The actions you take in the tutorial have a heavy effect on your reputation with all factions involved; it’s essentially a way for you to configure your starting reputation for the game proper, which starts as soon as you resolve the Edict and get control of an ancient Spire that gives you magic powers because you’re the Chosen One3 and… oh, just imagine the same cliched horseshit that’s been the foundation of every single RPG of this type since Baldur’s Gate 2 and you’ll have the story as it pertains to your character in particular. Far more interesting is the wider world of Tyranny, which you get to explore in the course of cleaning up the fallout from the tutorial — I really liked that there was no clean solution to the Chorus vs. Disfavored problem and that no matter what you did you were going to end up pissing somebody off. I do also feel like the tutorial itself could have implemented this a little more organically rather than presenting you with a “NOW CHOOSE” crisis point, but I guess they wanted to give you one last chance to walk back anything stupid that you might have done while getting to grips with the factions and the reputation system. Anyway, you flit about the world putting the boot into dissident groups and rebel factions and in the process learn much more about Tyranny’s world and its backstory, and I must say this was a significant improvement on the comparatively dry and tasteless world of Pillars Of Eternity. As usual for an Obsidian game the writing is very high-quality, but there’s also a large sprinkling of flavour provided by all the locations that you visit having a very tangible history; there’s one or two Generic Cities that are basically just there so that you have somewhere to sell the vast piles of weapons and armour that you’ve looted from the bodies of your foes (this hasn’t changed from Pillars), but for the most part it’s fascinating to see how Kyros’ conquest has changed things, and how you can change them back.
Kyros’ empire being a nuanced, layered place full of people who are for the most part just trying to get through the day is one of Tyranny’s big strengths, but in light of that marketing I also feel it’s a bit of a weakness too. Kyros himself is a mysterious, powerful figure who wields magics that nobody else really understands, but beneath him stands a rather mundane and human structure. Your role as a Fatebinder is one of a roving judge, but while you might be expecting to roleplay Judge Dredd the cases you’re presented with are more reminiscent of Judge Judy: petty squabbles over goods and jobs and merchant trading rights. Yes, you can usually end these cases by having somebody executed but it seems like something of an overreaction given the circumstances. Tellingly, the responses you’re able to pick in these conversations usually follow the standard RPG blueprint: you’ve got the Good option, the Self-Serving option, the Evil option, and the I’m Going To Kill You option4. At no point in the game are you presented with any particularly difficult moral choices; there’s no case where you’re forced to choose between the lesser of two evils in the name of trying to do some kind of good, which is the sort of thing that I was expecting from Tyranny. The supposed evil empire is, at the end of the day, no more evil than the Roman Empire was; I’m not arguing that the Roman Empire wasn’t a pretty shitty place for anyone who wasn’t on top of the pile, but I don’t think you could call it inherently evil, like there was some black beating heart at the centre of it. It was just people being people, and Kyros’ empire is too. While Tyranny’s portrayal of the empire as a very human environment makes it a great place to set an RPG its world and the way you interact with it is far closer to something like Pillars than the premise implies.
And this is a bigger problem for Tyranny than it sounds, because it’s painfully obvious that Tyranny was a game made on a shoestring budget and that’s resulted in a lot of natural carryovers from Pillars in and of itself. The companion and inventory systems are identical. Combat has many of the same basic concepts as that found in Pillars, although the bewildering array of spells and abilities has been helpfully streamlined to make it a system that’s now parsable by a human who hasn’t spent dozens of hours playing it; I’ve seen people say it’s been dumbed down but I found Tyranny’s combat to be far more enjoyable than what I experienced when I revisited Pillars to play White March. Speaking of White March, Tyranny imports the Artifact Weapons found in the expansion pack. There is a lot of carryover, and while I’m not complaining all that much since everything they’ve imported was at least proven to work the first time around, it does ensure that the two games bear more than a superficial resemblance to one another. The budget limitations also mean there are some parts of the game that feel distinctly underfed, in particular the Missive interface (think fantasy e-mail) which is used for all of one significant conversation, and the ending, which is very similar to Mankind Divided in that Tyranny gets about two thirds of the way through the story and then just… stops. It’s a far more coherent two-thirds than Mankind Divided managed and does at least halt at a natural break point that leaves room for an expansion pack to round out the story, but it still feels ridiculously anticlimactic to have a third act that takes about half an hour and then finishes with you pushing a button.
(Oh, and Tyranny also shares Pillars’ ridiculous loading times. It should not take twenty seconds plus to load a tiny room with two people in it. There’s a city with about fifteen of these building interiors and I gave up exploring them after the sixth or seventh one because I couldn’t face sitting through another loading screen.)
Still, Tyranny does have one last significant card to play: it’s taken heavy inspiration from Alpha Protocol for its reputation system, and that logic carries through to the game’s replayability. It does choice and consequence right, scattering little decision points throughout the game that all add up to produce a story that feels truly organic – because it is. It’s genuinely changed in response to your actions. Aligning yourself with one faction or another in the tutorial (or even spurning them both) will significantly change how the rest of the game plays out from that point onward. I would up carving my way through more than one settlement that was obviously supposed to have NPCs and questlines in it because my choices earlier on in the story had flagged me as an enemy to those people. I think there’s at least four different ways to play through it, and while I find the idea of a second playthrough less immediately compelling than I did in Alpha Protocol5 I might eventually go back to it to see how the “Screw everyone, I’m the best” path plays out. That’s more than I can say for Pillars.
In a way, Tyranny is everything I’ve come to expect from an Obsidian RPG. It has good writing, an engaging world and a story that evolves as you play it — just so long as you’re willing to put up with all of the flaws and cut content. I’ve made many positive comparisons to Alpha Protocol throughout this review and that’s pretty damn high praise, but Tyranny’s development issues are more glaringly obvious than those in Alpha Protocol6. More than anything else, though, I feel like it would have benefited from not being sold as a game where you play the Bad Guy, when it’s actually an entirely conventional RPG. It’s a good one, don’t get me wrong, but I couldn’t get over that expectation the whole time I was playing it, and when you combine that with the odd decision to release it during Hell Month (which has already done for at least one GOTY candidate) it’s ensured that I think less of it than I probably should do.
- Or she; one of the nice things about Tyranny is that very little is actually known about Kyros and nobody knows what gender they are, or even if they’re a single person or a group of people. ↩
- Although this did leave me wondering why Kyros didn’t just make an Edict saying everyone in the enemy fortress was going to die right this second. Seems like it would have saved a lot of time. ↩
- Not a term the game uses, but Tyranny is still guilty of invoking the “You Are A Special Snowflake” trope. ↩
- Tyranny’s great innovation here is to also have a Stay Silent option, along with (occasionally) Glare. The ability to not actually say anything at all does add a surprising amount to conversations. ↩
- A game that I played through three times in less than a week. ↩
- Which weren’t exactly well-camouflaged themselves. ↩